I never wanted to move to China. When my husband first told me that we were moving to China, the fear of the unknown clogged my senses. A stream of questions bubbled up from my subconscious, fueled by preconceived notions about China, as well as the rampant mass media coverage of anti-Muslim sentiment across the globe.
Will the food be halal? How will we communicate? Will I be able to find a job wearing hijab?
Heading to the notable Sheikh Google, I searched for American expat groups in Shanghai. My search yielded little more than bars, clubs, booze, shady massage parlors, “killer nightlife”, and human trafficking. After six years of living in Saudi Arabia, shifting to an eastern “Sin City” was a comic twist of fate. To add insult to injury, as a short and chubby hijabi, I was hardly the Barbie doll that most expect from an All-American expat. Worries in tow, we arrived in Shanghai on a rainy February afternoon.
Eight months later, I’m happy to report that Shanghai itself has been is a very Muslim-friendly city to me! In retrospect, I’m quite ashamed that I was so ignorant to China’s long history with the Muslim world. Muslims have been present in China since right after its revelation. One of the oldest mosques in the world is in Guangzhou. It is called the Huaisheng Mosque, and it is 1300 years old!
Year: 627 pic.twitter.com/6Tyb7GI6mU
— تراب الملك (@Yourdoindos) June 15, 2016
That being said, China is an enormous country, in regards to both landmass and population. In comparison to the United States (3.79 million sq.miles), China is only slightly smaller (3.70 million square miles). However, China is a clear winner in terms of population density. China is the most populous country in the world, clocking in at a whopping 1.4 billion citizens. It’s rich culture and long spanning history make it a fascinating country to study and visit – but it is simply too vast to cover in a short blog post. Since I don’t have a novel-length space to tell you about China, I will focus my advice on Shanghai.
Before You Come to China
Whether you are traveling to China for leisure or coming on business, there are a few things a Muslim traveler should bring with them.
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我是回民,不可以吃猪肉. I’m Muslim and cannot eat pork.
“I do not want pork in my food, can I get food without pork? Thanks”
In addition, the two payment applications WeChat and Alipay are used everywhere in China. It will make your life so much easier if you can use them. Cash and cards can be used in many venues, but these two applications will give you the complete China experience! Throw in China’s answer to Uber, which is DiDi and you’re ready to fly!
So you’ve landed in Shanghai, what’s the first thing you want to do?
Eat of course! How do you find halal food in China? Luckily, China uses the same sign for halal food as the rest of the world. The word “halal” in Arabic is written on any Muslim restaurant.
Most Muslim restaurants are also known for their lively exteriors and decorations, you should be able to find them quite easily. They are on every corner here in Shanghai! Halal Chinese food ranges in flavor and specialty, but they are essentially divided into three categories.
Mom and Pop Shops: Peppered throughout the city, there are small halal Muslim restaurants that carry home-style food. The gyoza, noodles, and mini-lamb sandwiches are some favorites. These restaurants are typically designed with simple (or no) decorations and seating arrangements. In Shanghai, it is perfectly acceptable to sit next to a stranger to eat, so don’t hesitate to take an empty seat. There are 30 million people in Shanghai, everyone knows that space is limited.
Dine-in: These restaurants are catered more towards expats or those craving ambiences and entertainment. Traditional clothing, music, and dancing is all part of the experience.
Some of the favorites that I recommend:
Yershari– If you want halal food that is also authentically Chinese, try Yershari. Chinese Muslim cuisine is a mashup of China spices and Afghan/Pakistani food. We frequent Yershari often! Roasted lamb is their speciality.
Xibo– Xinjiang cuisine meets modern fusion restaurant. Delicious food and buzzing atmosphere, you won’t want to miss this restaurant. The Duck with Cherry Sauce is out of this world.
1001 Nights – If you are craving Middle Eastern food, this is the place to go in Shanghai. The menu selection is huge and everything is tasty. One of my favorite dishes is the garlic soujouk. We also order large quantities of their fresh bread and freeze it so we can have it anytime. There are belly dancing performances on Saturday night, but you can also enjoy many different restaurants through the English delivery app Sherpa’s.
Bali Bistro: A halal Indonesian restaurant right next to Jing’An Temple. Fill your plates with dishes such as nasi goreng, lumpiah, and satay after a tour of the temple. There are also plenty of non-alcoholic drinks that function as dessert if you have a sweet tooth.
Delivery: In Shanghai, you can get anything delivered. Anything. One of my greatest discoveries while living here in China is the food delivery app Sherpa’s. With it, I’m not dependent on my Mandarin speaking colleagues. The app allows you to view menus/order in English, as well as provide special instructions to the restaurant. There are many vegetarian options as well!
Another option if you have some time is to attend one of the many cooking classes in Shanghai. Noodle pulling and dumpling making are commonly offered, and since you will be in control of what goes in your food, it’s a perfect way to ensure everything is halal. Just make sure to coordinate with the teacher ahead of time.
Shanghai has thousands of restaurants and dishes to try, so keep an open mind…and stomach.
What’s a Muslim to do in Shanghai? The possibilities are endless!
If you are traveling on a budget, you can meet Asia Free Tours for a free guide (tip recommended) to most of the major tourist attractions. With a little extra money, you can get a private guide to all the city’s street food in the morning or night walking tour. Their breakfast food walking tour is particularly special because street stall vendors can be difficult to find, especially the most delicious ones. Any food allergies/considerations can be included in these group/private tours, just make sure you send them a message ahead of time.
The Bund: Shanghai’s picturesque waterfront, known as “the Bund,” is where you’ll find those classic skyline photo ops. Day/night boat rides are available, each offering great views! While you are in the area, visit the Oriental Pearl TV Tower, the Shanghai World Financial Center and other skyscrapers standing across the Huangpu River. Skip the sightseeing tunnel, it is laughably unimpressive.
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Nanjing Road is a close shopping street that is also worth a visit. The Shanghai Musuem is a free museum located in People’s Square, which is a hop, skip, and a jump from the Bund and Nanjiing Road (Pedestrian Street). It will take about two hours to complete and the lines can be quite long, so you will want to get there early!
Zhujiajiao is an ancient watertown right outside Shanghai and accessible by metro. The waterways and nature make it a must-see, but I suggest visiting on a weekday to avoid the weekend crowds.
Yuyuan Garden is a 5 acre garden that took almost 20 years to complete and it isa perfect spot for a lunch picnic and stroll. The gardens will take you about an hour to explore (2 at the most), but the surrounding area is filled with shopping and snacks. Pick up a few silk scarves (don’t forget to bargain), tea leaves, and other souvenirs. There is also a mosque within this neighborhood, but it is closed to the periodically. Maybe you will get lucky and get to visit! I would also suggest a weekday visit to avoid the crushing crowd.
China has a plethora of gardens and temples (Jade Buddha Temple and Jing’An Temple are famous in Shanghai), as well as shopping areas (Xiantiandi, AP Plaza, and Superbrand Mall) so depending on the length of your trip you can visit as many, or as little as you want!
Neighborhoods to check out: Former French Concession (where I live), Xiantiandi, People’s Square, Zhongshan Park, Xuijiahui, Pudong, Jing’An
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Another valuable resource for things to do is 247 tickets. Not only do they list most activities/attractions in Shanghai, you can purchase tickets directly from the website, sometimes at a major discount! Anything from plays, musicals, performances, festivals, tours, even rock climbing is available through this website.
One of my favorite things to do is to visit the Friday Muslim Market. This market is a wonderful way to immerse yourself in the Chinese Muslim food traditions and is one of the most unique things to check out when in Shanghai.
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This woman was super friendly and didn't mind us taking her photograph. She was a deft hand at filling the dough with a meat and noodle mixture… which she then flattened with the palm of her hand before handing it off to her partner for deep frying. #afamiliarsight #fridaymuslimmarket #shanghai #china #baliktongsan #latergram
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Nowhere else in Shanghai can you find street food like this! This market is right by the Huxi mosque, one of the most famous mosques in Shanghai. There are several others, such as the Shanghai Songjiang Mosque (松江清真寺) which is the oldest, Shanghai Pudong Mosque (上海浦东清真寺) which is easily accessible for tourists, and Shanghai Fuyou Road Mosque (上海市福佑路清真寺).
All in all, Shanghai is a wonderful place for Muslims to visit and live. I hope to see you here in Shanghai soon!
K.T is an American revert to Islam at the age of 22. I exist mainly in what people view as contradictions. She is a corporate writer/editor by day and a novelist by night. She is a Zumba instructor, PADI certified scuba diver, Toastmaster, and coffee addict. An enthusiastic dabbler, she frequently practices yoga, kayaking, hiking, and 5 K run's. Follow her journey on ktlynn.com.